Forest Rights Act implementation in Bengal – Front allies join protests

A The Telegraph report, January 9, 2008

The RSP and the Forward Bloc have joined NGOs in alleging violation of forest villagers’ rights following a government notification declaring vast swathes of the Sunderbans and the Buxa Tiger Reserve “critical wildlife habitats”.

It has, they said, made hundreds of forest villagers vulnerable to the threat of eviction, though the CPM had been championing their cause at the Centre.

The forest minister said he was “not aware” of the notification. Officials confirmed that it had been issued on December 20 but denied any violation of the forest villagers’ rights.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, protects their right to forest produce.

The NGOs and the CPM’s allies alleged that Bengal had not taken any initiative to implement the law despite the party’s pressure for its passage in Parliament.

“No hearing was conducted to seek the opinion of the local forest villagers before the notification was issued. Nor was the gram sabhas’ approval obtained, though both were mandatory according to the law,’’ said wildlife activist Soumitra Ghosh.

According to him, over 2 lakh people would be threatened by the notification.

The Bloc’s Naren Chatterjee and the RSP’s Mihir Chandra smelt a “conspiracy”.

“Forest villagers in Purulia and West Midnapore, too, are being displaced in the name of development. The Sunderbans would be further denuded to make room for eco-tourism ventures. The notification is part of that process,’’ Chatterjee alleged.

The RSP leader wondered if “the notification was to preserve areas for more chemical hubs”.

Forest minister Ananta Roy said: “I have no knowledge of any such notification. I should not comment without checking with my officers.”

The principal chief conservator of forests, Atanu Raha, said the notification had made 1,700sqkm of the Sunderbans and around 500sqkm of the Buxa reserve “inviolable for any human settlement”.

He said no Sunderbans village would be affected by the notification. “Do the NGOs want us to hold a public hearing among the tigers?” he asked.

Raha parried questions on Buxa. “Two villages had been relocated from the Buxa and Gorumara forests in north Bengal earlier. We have no plan to evict any other village now.”

For more information on this issue, please follow the reports from Nagarik Mancha.